Lately, tapes of the Rev. Paige Patterson are creating an uproar about the treatment of women in the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination.
Patterson is a former Southern Baptist Convention president and a current seminary president. A few decades ago he helped lead the denomination’s conservative takeover.
He’s long opposed appointing women to leadership roles in the church.
But in these tapes — for which Patterson has begrudgingly apologized — he appears to express happiness that a woman’s abusive husband has blacked both her eyes. He makes other demeaning comments.
Then there’s “A Letter to My Brothers,” published earlier this month by Beth Moore, the evangelical Bible teacher. It’s brilliantly written: humble, compassionate, sad and angry all at the same time.
In it, Moore, who also hails from a Southern Baptist background, discusses the years of slights, disrespect and attempted silencing she’s endured as a woman author and speaker.
There’s a great deal to be said about the treatment and mistreatment of women within Christianity, some of which I’ve dealt with here in the past.
The most important thing to repeat is that discrimination of any kind, whether it’s about gender, race or class, is wrong anywhere, and doubly wrong in the church. The kingdom of God has no second-class citizens.
But the point that struck me this time around is a bit more arcane.
It’s that theology does make practical differences in how we regard God and one another.
I was raised Southern Baptist, but had a few relatives so fundamentalist they considered Southern Baptists liberal heretics. I learned the conservative Protestant worldview firsthand.
For the past 40 years, however, I’ve been a Pentecostal.
Pentecostals tend to be fervent in their worship style. They talk a lot about their love for Jesus. To outsiders, they often sound like evangelicals or fundamentalists.
But their theology is significantly different.
I’d argue Pentecostals’ record regarding women is far better than those other groups.
Conservative evangelicals, fundamentalists and Pentecostals all place a strong emphasis on the Bible as their primary authority.
Unfortunately, the Bible sometimes appears contradictory on the role of women.
In nearly every action Jesus had with women, he broke the norms of his time. He talked with women as equals. They traveled with him. After his resurrection, he first appeared to a woman.
St. Paul, similarly, ministered alongside women deacons and prophets. He specifically said there was no difference between men and women in God’s kingdom.
Yet Jesus also chose only men as his apostles. Paul wrote stern passages chiding women to keep quiet at church, and said he didn’t allow them to teach or lead men.
So it’s complicated.
Because for 2,000 years the broader cultural weight has been on men’s side, they’ve usually won out in the church, too. The scriptures saying women should quietly submit have been given more credence than those saying women are equal.
And for some (not all) Baptists, as for many other conservative groups, the Bible isn’t just Christianity’s central authority. It’s the only authority.
Some sects’ theology holds that the New Testament is the final word given by God to human beings. Divine revelation ended when the last biblical book was completed. Whatever the Bible says is thus settled for all time. No amendments allowed.
Because they’ve long since assumed the New Testament says women shouldn’t function as leaders — that’s it. Done and done. To them, women should tend the home fires and let men handle the spiritual heavy lifting.
However, a little more than a century ago, a revolutionary Pentecostal revival erupted within Protestantism. It brought with it a very different paradigm.
From the start, Pentecostals believed God was still speaking to his children. Through the Bible, yes, but also through visions, tongues and prophecies supplied by the Holy Spirit.
They believed in progressive revelation — that God continues throughout all ages to reveal new dimensions of his will and word to those willing to hear.
Among other things, they quickly bought into St. Paul’s idea that in God’s kingdom there was neither man nor woman, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek. They bought that more than the belief women should keep silent.
Women preached and taught in Pentecostal churches 100 years ago. (Also, black people led integrated congregations, but that’s another column.)
For a while, anyway. Of course, in real life, over time, this sometimes became more an aspiration than a reality. Old prejudices crept back in.
Still, today, imperfect as Pentecostal churches are, you usually don’t find nearly the overt discrimination against women.
For instance, in the church I pastor, the roughly dozen leaders — pastors, elders, deacons, music director — are divided almost exactly between men and women.
That’s not the result of a quota. It just doesn’t occur to anyone there’s any job a woman can’t do as well as a man. Or vice versa. Same Holy Spirit. Same anointing.
That’s the direct result of theology.
One theology says God quit talking two millennia ago, and so we must do things the way we’ve always done them, because that’s the way God intended it for all time.
Progressive revelation says the Holy Spirit is revealing God’s will every day and, if we’ll listen, he’ll keep showing us fresher, better ways to discern his truths.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.